It is indisputable that Our Blessed Lord held His second cousin, John the Baptist, in high regard. Jesus said, "Among those born of women, there has been none greater than John the Baptist." Why did Christ pay John such high praise? The Gospel reveals at least two reasons.
First, Christ praised John for his humility and deference. As appealing as John the Baptist was to his hearers, he always identified himself as nothing more than a messenger. Consider that, after awhile, John the Baptist attracted his own followers. In fact, some of the Lord's own apostles, including John, James and Andrew, originally were disciples of John the Baptist. And yet, the Baptist never intended to attract people to himself. Instead, he lived to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
Moreover, he never received the earthly consolation of having seen Jesus complete His earthly ministry. When Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized, John said, "Behold the Lamb of God," and his followers immediately left him to follow Jesus. There was no trace of jealousy or bitterness on the part of John the Baptist. He did not ask Our Lord for praise or any signs of gratitude. He merely sowed the seeds of repentance and conversion that Jesus would take up in His own public ministry.
Second, Christ esteemed John the Baptist for his perseverance in witness and his enduring desire to lead all persons to God. The Gospel account relates that John continued to give witness to Jesus while in prison. Although incarcerated, John continued to point to the Lamb of God — his zeal for Jesus could not be contained by prison walls. While in prison, John was able to receive some visitors and he sent them away to Jesus with a question. John wanted his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?" We may wonder why John wanted his disciples to pose such a question.
To gain the proper perspective, we turn to St. Thomas of Villanova, a 16th century Augustinian friar and bishop. St. Thomas tells us that John sent his disciples to Jesus with the question in order to provide for them. Fully aware that death was imminent, John wanted his disciples to come into the care of Christ. John also sent his disciples with the question so as to give Jesus an opportunity to speak to the crowds, not so much in words but by pointing to His deeds. When asked if he was the Messiah, Christ replied, "Go and report to John what you have heard. The blind are receiving their sight, the lame are walking, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise again and the good news is proclaimed to the poor." It is as if Jesus said, "The works that I am doing are my witness." This reveals a simple truth about Christ: not only could He preach the kingdom of God — He could prove His efficacy by His works, including His decision when to lay down His life and take it up again.
During the season of Advent, we do well to imitate these virtues of the great John the Baptist: humility, deference to Christ, perseverance in witness, and an enduring zeal to lead all persons to Jesus — the focal point of all human history and the hope of all mankind. May we esteem these virtues as signs of true greatness in the sight of God.